“How do you say that word?”: Choreopoems and Doing It for the Culture
By Monica Prince
The summer after I graduated high school, my sister called. “I need you to write something down, then go to the bookstore tomorrow and buy it,” she said.
“Just do what I say!”
I wrote down For colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, a choreopoem by Ntozake Shange (1975). As I’ve always wanted to be (like) my sister, I did what she said. The next day, I drove to Borders (RIP) and bought the last copy on the shelf. I read it in one sitting, violently sobbing on my mother’s couch.
A choreopoem is a choreographed series of poems blending spoken word poetry, dance, art, and music. Shange coined the term in 1975 with her debut piece, For colored girls. It started out as a small show, performed in bars and coffeehouses, before suddenly taking off and landing on Broadway. To this day, it’s considered one of the pivotal pieces in African American performance. (See the African American Museum of History and Culture exhibit in Washington, DC.)
The show is about “a black girl’s song,” the experience of a Black woman (or woman of color) on the precipice of extinction. Using seven colors (red, yellow, blue, green, orange, brown, and purple), the “ladies” play out the experiences specific and not so specific to “bein alive and bein a woman and bein colored.” They talk about sex, rape, pregnancy and abortion, and learning to love oneself as the God she is: “I saw god in myself and I loved her / I loved her fiercely.”
Choreopoems appeal to me because the physical act of poetry saved my life. The ability to sit with my feelings and use metaphor to access the hardest details of my experiences kept me from killing myself. To me, writing is about honesty. If I wasn’t able to write and perform poems about my sexual assaults, my parents’ divorce, or even the shock of being Black in white spaces, the Monica who sits before you now would not exist.
Choreopoems provide access to people who might not go to a poetry reading, or dance recital, or choir concert, or gallery opening. They give art to the people it has always been meant for: the broken, the reckless, the downtrodden and tired and desperate. Our stories survive within us, and choreopoems take the stories of a few and give them to us all.
There are different types of choreopoems. If you search the term on YouTube, you’ll find hundreds of videos of choreographed poems, text that’s been choreographed to music and/or dance. Typically, these videos are short, one poem in length. In addition, there are full-length shows that could be considered choreopoems if we look at the structure (overall theme, multiple characters, performed poems and monologues, a little dancing), but call themselves something else: Anna Deveare Smith’s one-woman shows could be considered choreopoems, especially Let Me Down Easy (2009). Recitations of Shakespeare’s sonnets, too. Even Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues could be considered a choreopoem if we added some dancing.
However, as I believe in understanding the rules before breaking them, I call choreopoems such when they look like Shange’s work. When you do it my way, you add some live artists and parkour and call it a day.
I wrote for a decade before I discovered the choreopoem, and it taught me the ways my work can stretch, bend, break, and explode. The choreopoem gave legitimacy to my slam and spoken word poems (because we all know about the uncomfortable debate regarding “stage” vs. “page” poetry). Writing poetry that was meant to be performed (which, in my opinion, is all poetry), putting it in the bodies of performers whose identities influence and possibly change the words’ interpretations, and tossing everything on stage in the context of a play (an accepted form of art)—that’s not a small thing. That, really, is monumental.
Logo Design: Kaila Snyder
This past April at Susquehanna University, I produced my third choreopoem, How to Exterminate the Black Woman. The title alone was enough to start an investigation with Public Safety. Hosting this show on a small, private, liberal arts campus in rural Pennsylvania was difficult—we had no designated rehearsal space because the show wasn’t housed in the theatre department; we had to fight with Greek life for rooms to rehearse in; and getting eleven high-achieving, over-committed Black women in the same space at the same time for longer than an hour was damn near impossible.
But here’s the thing about choreopoems, about vision and representation—if you build it, they will come.
Our campus is struggling with a culture of hate. The 2016 election made it worse. Students of difference are suffering from constant silence, isolation, and rage. Every other week, a swastika is found in a prominent place, or a white student throws the n-word in a group chat, or some anti-queer slur is chalked on the sidewalks outside the first-year dorms. The administration is trying, as are the faculty and staff, to make our students come correct, to educate and enlighten them on how hate harms not just the targets, but the attackers, too.
And we are tired. We are so tired.
I wrote How to Exterminate the Black Woman because I’m tired. Since 2008, I’ve learned that choreopoems are the fastest way to get a message out. And that’s unfortunate. I teach compassion, empathy, and pain every week in my first-year writing courses—but when a Black girl gets up in front of a standing room-only audience and says, “White women will still touch your hair without permission,” suddenly my students understand invasion of space and white power over Black bodies.
When the marginalized tell their stories on the streets, they are dismissed, told they are overreacting, sensitive, or blowing things out of proportion.
When the marginalized tell their stories on a stage, they are powerful, bold, and honest.
This is a problem.
Friday night cast in the Wakanda Forever pose
Photo Credit: Jessica Nirvana Ram
My cast and crew consisted of eleven Black women, one Black man, and one white woman. Every day for two months, we broke down what it means to be a Black woman on campus and in the world. We vented and breathed and offered affirmations and prayed and cried and danced and laughed. I validated their lives not just with what I wrote, but by listening to them, asking them to process their feelings, and giving them space to be heard. By the time they got on stage in April to a sold-out audience, they knew exactly who they were, what they were supposed to say, and why it mattered.
Art gives access, but it also gives excuses. Nothing my cast said that weekend hadn’t been said before. The Black Student Union and the Hip Hop Society and the Gender and Sexuality Alliance and the other diversity organizations on campus have been asking for safety and a loudspeaker since I arrived here in August. The difference sits in the vehicle for transmission: a stage, a performance, and a writer/director with power—me.
Cast and Crew for How to Exterminate the Black Woman, closing night
Photo Credit: Jared Westhoff
At Susquehanna, it is hard to be alive, a woman, and Black. Substitute those last two identities with your own, and it’s still true. But the fact that a show titled How to Exterminate the Black Woman premiered there amidst hate speech and racism is an important milestone. Furthermore, it created a culture of dialogue. Knowing the stories are real changes the way we see art. We can dance to Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar and know what they say is true—but at the end of the day, we see them as artists, highly successful rich people who suffer but suffer less.
When we see struggle transmitted as art in the bodies of people we know, trust, and love, the struggle becomes real. We have an opportunity to ask questions, to shift our understanding, and practice real empathy. We are not free until we all walk free—and regardless of the genre-bending that dissuades publishing institutions, the difficulty of convincing playhouses of their merit, and the cognitive dissonance of hating slam poetry while simultaneously making money from it, the choreopoem acts as a vehicle for freedom. Old stories enter new bodies, plant roots, and bear fruit again. Soon enough, we won’t need a stage to present evidence of our worth.
Monica Prince is the 2017-2019 Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. She’s the managing editor for the Santa Fe Writers Project, and the author of the chapbook, Letters from the Other Woman. Her work can be found in MadCap Review, Fourth & Sycamore, The Shade Journal,Texas’s Best Emerging Poets, TRACK//FOUR, and others. Her choreopoem, How to Exterminate the Black Woman premiered as a full-length show in April 2018 in Selinsgrove, PA, where she teaches, writes, and performs. Keep up with her work on her website or follow her on Twitter.